Books Meta Writing

Genre content does not equal plagiarism

I thought I was done with the Opal Mehta issue, but this Times opinion piece by Whitney Otto, plus Malcolm Gladwell’s earlier but similarly-themed blog post, have got me a little annoyed. (Gladwell’s 2004 New Yorker article on plagiarism, on the other hand, is a wonderful nuanced read.) Both Otto and Gladwell say, essentially, that it’s no surprise that a genre writer too lazy-minded to come up with an original idea would also stoop to stealing sentence-level language. Gladwell, for example:

But once we have conceded that in genre fiction its [sic] okay to borrow themes, why do we get so upset when genre novelists borrow something a good deal less substantial—namely phrases and sentences? Surely an idea is more consequential than a sentence.

I won’t spend too much time whining, as Otto might say, about the dismissal of genre fiction in both pieces; Kelly Link refutes this point beautifully in her comment to Gladwell’s blog post. (Though I would be overjoyed never to have to read this sentence from Otto’s piece, or a variation on it, again: “At its best, genre writing can transcend its given genre.” Talk about predictable.) But I think the conflation of two different kinds of plagiarism is sloppy and disingenuous.

If Opal Mehta had merely been a book similar in plot, content, and overall tone to other chick-lit books, then it would have been derivative and perhaps unremarkable — but it wouldn’t have been recalled by its publisher. The problem with Opal Mehta is that it includes passages copied nearly word-for-word from previously published books. Specific books, with specific authors, who did, in fact, “write their own books,” whether or not those books are works of deathless prose. Just to restate: copying passages verbatim from other texts is not the same thing as borrowing ideas from other texts. It may be that Viswanathan did both, but it does not follow that someone who chooses to write in a marketable and conventional genre is therefore also a thief of ideas and language.

(And that’s leaving aside entirely the issue of derivative use and literary inspiration most recently discussed at Making Light.)

Also, Whitney Otto sure has some odd ideas about what writers are like:

Overachievers don’t generally become writers because the skill set is so different.

Has she heard of Joyce Carol Oates?


  1. Malcolm Gladwell is being foolish. The issues under discussion are not peculiar to genre fiction. As for why we get upset about the borrowing of specific language — is it possible he doesn’t know that copyright covers the telling, not the tale? This is basic stuff.

  2. I agree, and his foolishness here is even weirder considering that he obviously spent a lot of time thinking about plagiarism for that New Yorker piece. Upon rereading that article, though, it strikes me again how much importance he places on the artistic quality of the work which contains borrowed ideas. Reading the two pieces side-by-side sets up a strange double standard. Bryony Lavery’s verbatim borrowings in Frozen, though nominally “wrong,” were acceptable because she used them to produce art; Viswanathan’s borrowings are beneath his notice because she produced formulaic fiction (and her choice to produce formulaic fiction supposedly marks her as a potential plagiarist, anyway). Bah.

    Gladwell did post a conciliatory retraction, which I hadn’t noticed before. But I still don’t think he adequately explains the connection he made between genre writing and language-thievery. Clichéd dialogue doesn’t equal plagiarism, either.

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